The stock market has hit sky-scraping highs, the unemployment rate has dipped to a five-year low and any number of economic statistics — new car sales, home prices, consumer spending — point to a perked-up economy that is steadily growing.
But one thing that has changed little is President Barack Obama’s job approval rating, which tumbled over the past year to the anemic 40 percent range and remains stuck near the low point of his administration.
The chasm is striking, and a worrisome thing for Democrats already facing a tough election year. One of the most reliable barometers of political well-being is the state of the economy. Good times usually bring good tidings; woe to the incumbent and party in the White House when times are tough. In the case of Obama and fellow Democrats, however, there has been a clear disconnect between economic indicators and political popularity.
The reasons are many, among them the depth of the Great Recession and the toll of the president’s health care reform effort, which has dragged down assessments of the president’s competence and trustworthiness.
The most important factor, though, may be the widely held view that, statistics aside, the economy is struggling and many, if not most, Americans have not benefited from the lumbering recovery. Significantly, millions who want to work still can’t find jobs.
“People are hunkered down,” said Lawrence Mishel, president of the Economic Policy Institute, a left-leaning Washington think tank that focuses on how policies affect low- and moderate-income families. “Very few are having an easy time of it.”
It is not unusual for widespread pessimism to fly in the face of upbeat economic news, even long after recovery has taken hold.
In 1994, well into the turnaround that began the boom years under President Bill Clinton, people remained dissatisfied with the state of the economy, according to surveys by the Pew Research Center. It was only in the latter part of the Clinton administration, after successive years of strong job growth, that attitudes changed, helping Democrats win seats in the 1998 midterm election. (Clinton’s own 1992 victory came about when voters ignored the budding economic recovery under President George H.W. Bush and ousted the Republican incumbent.)
The Great Recession began in December 2007 and ended in June 2009, according to the National Bureau of Economic Research, a private group in Cambridge, Mass., that officially charts the nation’s business cycles. That means the country is 4 years into recovery, technically speaking. However, job growth did not resume until 2010, and even with the 2 million positions added last year, the country still has not recovered all the jobs lost in the downturn, the steepest since the Great Depression of the 1930s.
Given a steady stream of good-tinged-with-bad news — the jobless rate, for instance, fell last month to 6.7 percent, the lowest level since October 2008, but only because so many stopped looking for work — polls continue to find a deep well of discouragement. Six in 10 said in a December Pew survey the news they were hearing about the economy was mixed; far more, 31 percent said they were hearing mostly bad news, compared to 7 percent who said the news was mostly good.